N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Romans Reconsidered, Part 66J (Atonement Theories)

dayrevolutionbegan

N. T. “Tom” Wright has just released another paradigm-shifting book suggesting a new, more scriptural way of understanding the atonement, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. Wright delves deeply into how the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus accomplish our salvation.

The utter sinfulness of sin, redux

I read a post by Mark Love, which reminded me of some posts by Richard Beck, and then all of a sudden, Wright’s point about heaping up sin on Jesus so that it might be shown to be “utterly sinful” made sense in a whole new (old) way —

(Rom. 7:11-13 NET)  11 For sin, seizing the opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it I died.  12 So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous, and good.  13 Did that which is good, then, become death to me? Absolutely not! But sin, so that it would be shown to be sin, produced death in me through what is good, so that through the commandment sin would become utterly sinful. 

(Rom. 8:3 NIV) For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh,

Let’s start with Love’s post

Mark Heim’s book [Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross] suggests we’ve read the significance of the Bible’s “sacrifice” language totally backwards. For Heim, Jesus’ death is not the ultimate or most effective instance of redemptive violence or scapegoating, but the end of it. He writes, “Scapegoating brings us together, stops escalating conflict among us, unites us against a common enemy. We find peace by finding a common victim, by hating together. Satan casts out Satan and becomes all the stronger for it…”

In contrast, “(Jesus’) death exemplifies a specific kind of sin we are all implicated in and we all need saving from, and acts to overcome it. Only the divine power of resurrection and revelation could do that. God was willing to be a victim of that bad thing we had made apparently good, in order to expose its nature and liberate us from it.” (xi-xii).

Beck’s posts make up a seven-part series:

The Voice of the Scapegoat: Part 1, The Crisis of Penal Substitutionary Atonement

The Voice of the Scapegoat: Part 2, Sacred Violence, Scapegoats, and Myth

The Voice of the Scapegoat: Part 3, The Bloody Antimyth

The Voice of the Scapegoat: Part 4, The Whispers of Victims

The Voice of the Scapegoat: Part 5, Things Hidden from the Foundation of the World

The Voice of the Scapegoat: Part 6, “Surely This Man Was Innocent.”

The Voice of the Scapegoat: Part 7, “I Am Jesus, the One You Are Persecuting.”

Beck summarizes the lesson in Part 6 —

Following Girard[,] Heim points out that the cross is a paradox and the paradox is the key to a correct understanding of the death of Jesus. Heim states that we need to see the cross stereoscopically, two perspectives on the same story. It is this stereoscopic perspective that creates the paradox and, unfortunately, causes so much confusion about the death of Jesus.

Specifically, in the passion narrative there is the classic mythic story of the scapegoat, the story of a sacrifice to please God and bring communal peace. This is the story as it is experienced by those who are immersed in the events–the disciples, the crowd, Pilate, Herod, the Sanhedrin. Thus one story contains the actions, words and plot of a sacred sacrifice to appease God. These themes are undoubtedly present, but we must be careful not to read these dramatic movements as the main plotline.

Why not?

Because a second story is being overlaid the mythic scapegoat story. As readers we get access to the backstage of the drama. We get to see all the props, the makeup room, and the nervous pacing of the actors before they go out onstage. The gospel authors lift the veil of mystery for us. The scapegoating sacrifice, what is believed to be the product and demand of the gods, is now revealed in the gospel narratives for what it really is: The killing of an innocent man by self-interested parties who wish to retain their power and the status quo.

Schematically and dramatically, we have two stories being presented simultaneously in the gospels:

The Onstage Story = The Divinely Mandated Scapegoat Sacrifice

The Backstage Story = The Murder of an Innocent Man

As Girard has argued, this stereoscopic story, where both the onstage and backstage stories are simultaneously presented, is unique in history. Prior to the gospels only the Onstage Story had ever been told. The Old Testament, we have seen, suspected there was a Backstage Story, but it never did get that backstage pass to find out. But here in the gospels everything finally gets exposed. In the death of Jesus the final revelation occurs: Scapegoating must end, forever, because it is simply a ruse and strategy to accomplish our self-interested goals. In the cross there is one final scapegoat: Scapegoating. As Heim says, the “sacrifice” of Jesus was the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. Violence must cease because we just might be killing God.

(Boldface in original; italics are mine).

Let me try to join this together perhaps more simply. Paul says that by the Torah and the crucifixion, God showed sin to be utterly sinful. What was going on? Well, the leaders of the Jews, the Roman occupying military, and in a very real sense, the nation of Israel conspired to “honor” God by killing a man they believed to be a false messiah, a blasphemer, and someone likely to incite rebellion against the Romans. They violated Jewish and Roman law in countless ways. They even begged for Barabbas, a notorious criminal, to be freed from a just imprisonment in exchange for the crucifixion of Jesus. Witnesses were bribed to give false testimony. And the leaders of the Jews chanted, “We have no king but Caesar!” when their scriptures declare God to be their king. The words were idolatrous, honoring Caesar above God.

Now consider this parable —

(Matt. 21:33-41 NET)  33 “Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a fence around it, dug a pit for its winepress, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenant farmers and went on a journey.  34 When the harvest time was near, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his portion of the crop.  35 But the tenants seized his slaves, beat one, killed another, and stoned another.  36 Again he sent other slaves, more than the first, and they treated them the same way.  37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’  38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and get his inheritance!’  39 So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.  40 Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”  41 They said to him, “He will utterly destroy those evil men! Then he will lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him his portion at the harvest.” 

What is the role of the death of the son of the landowner in the parable? He doesn’t bring salvation — not as we think of salvation. Rather, he shows the sin of the servants to be utterly sinful. This is Rom 7:13 in story form: the crucifixion shows how utterly sinful sin is!

So the crucifixion condemned sin in the flesh of the Son because the crucifixion demonstrated the utter sinfulness of sin. Crucifying the Son of God — indeed, YHWH in the flesh, according to Acts 2:36 and 1 Cor 10 (as we’ve covered many times) — is as sinful as sin can be. And the wrongfulness was demonstrated beyond all doubt. The Jews, though blessed by God with the Torah and the prophets, rejected the core teachings of the Torah by idolatrously killing YHWH himself.

They studied and honored the Torah and yet suffered the utter sinfulness of sin — showing that (a) Torah cannot change hearts in a way sufficient to prevent sin from being utterly sinful, (b) even God’s chosen people, with thousands of years of special connection with God and with one prophet after another sent to bring God’s word to them, could not choose God over Caesar, (c) the powers and principalities win. That is, God created government and other such powers to help govern his people, to prevent anarchy and allow his people freedom to live in right relationship (shalom), but the powers and principalities ultimately see themselves as the true gods and the people ultimately bow to them. And so even when God himself appears, they kill him to worship the powers and principalities.

But, of course, this isn’t the end of the story. Satan controls all the kingdoms of the earth, he offers them to Jesus if Jesus would only bow and worship, and Jesus refuses. And Satan then contests Jesus for control of the hearts of the people, and Satan wins.

But this only proves the utter sinfulness of sin. Jesus was not the victim. Rather, he was the victor because not only was he resurrected, but he was enthroned with God in heaven as the true King of the Jews — proving the crucifixion — and all that drove it — to be utterly sinful. This is, in fact, the theme of Peter’s sermon in Acts 2.

That is, the worldview, the mindset, the point of view that says let’s seize power and defeat all who stand against us has been shown utterly sinful. Rather, the Way is the way of the Lamb — and we are called to join the Lamb in his mission or vocation, that is, in showing the superiority of the Way, which rejects controlling others, the imposition of power to compel obedience, and the use of violence to do “good.”

Jesus founded a Kingdom not of this world. It’s not based on power, control, or compulsion. It’s entered voluntarily only. It’s the opposite of crucifixion — which is done by the hands of man. It’s resurrection — which happens entirely by the power of God. And it doesn’t seek to change the culture of the world. It seeks to be the Kingdom and to invite the world to leave the realm of Sin, Death, and crucifixion and to join the realm of Life, Spirit, and resurrection.

Now, no one atonement theory fully explains the atonement. And I’m not sure the totality of what I’ve just covered does either — but it comes a lot closer than looking at the atonement in just one, privileged way. We need all the stories, all the points of view, all the perspectives — and maybe 100 more — because the atonement is much bigger than “how to get to heaven when you die.” And a limited atonement theology makes for a limited understanding of salvation, which makes for a limited life with Jesus.

But when we reflect deeply on each atonement theory and squeeze each one for all the juice that we can pour into our mouths, well, things change and change a lot. The Five Steps become obviously, woefully, sadly inadequate to explain what salvation is about. The Five Acts become pitifully insufficient to express the worship that God deserves. And even our politics and Facebook posts are redeemed from “Give us Barabbas!” and “We serve no king but Caesar” to “Truly this man was the Son of God!” because any proper atonement theory takes us to the foot of the cross.

Leave a Reply

  1. Hello Jay,
    I’ve just recently chanced upon your blog and have a couple of questions. First, a brief introduction: I am not a member of the Church of Christ, and know very little about the restoration movement. I am a lifelong, active member and former elder of a conservative non-denominational bible church. I found your blog by searching for a review of NT Wright’s book “The Day the Revolution Began” and your blog pops up several times in the first page if you include “atonement” in the search. I was reading reviews of the book prior to purchasing since I am on a bit of a book budget. You can imagine my joy when I saw your extensive posting on the book. No need to buy the book, now I’ve got Cliff Notes on steroids!

    So, on to my questions.

    In part 16, you state, “When Jesus died on the cross, it was indeed Jesus. But Jesus is God. It was God himself paying the price, just as he’d promised Abraham. This was not a Son appeasing the wrath of an unsympathetic, vengeful, hate-filled Father. It was God dying for us in the only way God can die — by taking human form and surrendering heaven to walk among us as one of us. God himself suffered death to give us life. That’s how he dealt with his wrath. He gave himself for us.” Is the phrase “unsympathetic, vengeful, hate-filled Father” yours, or NT Wrights? If Wrights, perhaps some context would be helpful. Previously he has stated that he does not reject penal substitution, and so I’m wondering if his position on this has changed.

    In Part 66 j- you provided a link to Richard Beck, (someone with whom I am unfamiliar) in which he states, “In the end we have an emotional and theological puzzle. First, the bible unequivocally states that we were, in some profound way, “saved” and “rescued” by the cross. But saved from what? PSA says we are being saved from God.

    Saved from God? That surely is confused.

    The second puzzle is that the cross is a bloody sacrifice. Why is a God of love so blood-thirsty?

    Heim points out other problems with PSA. I’ve just focused on these issues because they are the ones I’ve most struggled with. I rejected PSA a long time ago for just those reasons: I could not believe in a confused and blood-thirsty God.”

    As I read your post Part 66j, I was unclear if you share that particular objection. I saw in your post Part 66 a “Now, the goal isn’t to find the one, unique true theory. Most scholars are coming to the view that there are multiple true theories — that the atonement lies at the intersection of multiple themes and narratives.” Would you say that there is a place for substitutionary atonement as a part of the narrative?

    I have many more questions, but my comment has already rambled on too long. And if you’re wondering about all these questions, I really did come to your site just looking for a good review of the book. However since I found your blog and the associated progressive Church of Christ blogs I have a ton of questions regarding Church of Christ theology. I considered starting a new topic in the forum section in Wineskins, but there appears to be very little activity there. Thanks for your detailed review of this book.

  2. Jay said,” And it doesn’t seek to change the culture of the world. ”

    I suppose you mean through legislation or political power. But most assuredly we are called as Christians to be agents of change. “Let your light so shine” and “if salt loses it’s saltiness”. We influence culture by our upstream living in a downstream headed world. And we boldly proclaim the Good News, verbally. We hide nothing under a bushel. We expose the darkness to the light of God’s word. Peacefully. Not by might or by force but by our good deeds.

    Great post!

  3. Monty,

    The lights of a city set on hilltop may be seen for many miles, but the light isn’t given to light the countryside. It’s there to enlighten those in the city. It can’t be hidden, but it doesn’t seek to rid the world of darkness. Rather, the city beckons those outside to leave the dark and join the light.

    (Matt. 5:16 ESV) 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

    The goal of good works is not to persuade others to emulate our goodness but our worship — a surprising result to me. But good works done in any other name or no name at all are not good works. After all, how would anyone glorify God for your good works if you didn’t do them expressly in God’s name?

    We tend to mingle civil law with religion when we see good works as the goal or a better culture as the goal. There’s nothing here about changing culture. Rather, the goal Jesus announces is that we should draw the lost toward God’s good light — not that we’ll build more lights. Rather, we should draw the lost into the kingdom — and I suppose that could change the culture — unless we let the culture change us first.

    Hunter in To Change the World demonstrates that our ability to affect culture is very limited as shown both by scripture and science. Rather, he argues that our goal should be to be faithful. If our faithfulness changes the culture, well and good, but the goal is faithfulness regardless of the impact on culture. Hence, we don’t steer by looking in the rear view mirror. We look ahead to the NHNE rather than back on an imagined golden age of Christianity (Islam does in fact look back; we look forward to something better).

    Do we stand for those in the larger world who are poor and oppressed? Yes, but our goal is to call the powers to account, so that the perform their God-given role as defenders of everyone (not just the church) against criminals and enact just laws. But that is out of compassion for people we love, not because our political theory happens to match the scriptures.

    The analogy to ancient Israel and the prophets’ calling their kings to account doesn’t really work for a nation not governed by God’s law — expressly. That is, Israel is unique in world history. what was true of Israel is not necessarily true of the USA.

    Nonetheless, love requires us to decry injustice by the government — but not to change the culture so that the damned act like the saved. Rather, we cry out against injustice because of our love for the oppressed. Here’s the test: do the people being affected by our cries feel loved? Or do they feel oppressed by the church?

    Ah!! Much of what the church has done throughout history has come across as more about oppression, imposing our way, than freeing others from oppression — because Christianity is not really about civil law. The subjects overlap – but they are not the same and in the US, civil law is seen as a means of imposing goodness on bad people, and it’s poor tool for that job.

  4. floyd asked (Part 1),

    In part 16, you state, “When Jesus died on the cross, it was indeed Jesus. But Jesus is God. It was God himself paying the price, just as he’d promised Abraham. This was not a Son appeasing the wrath of an unsympathetic, vengeful, hate-filled Father. It was God dying for us in the only way God can die — by taking human form and surrendering heaven to walk among us as one of us. God himself suffered death to give us life. That’s how he dealt with his wrath. He gave himself for us.” Is the phrase “unsympathetic, vengeful, hate-filled Father” yours, or NT Wrights? If Wrights, perhaps some context would be helpful. Previously he has stated that he does not reject penal substitution, and so I’m wondering if his position on this has changed.

    In Part 66 j- you provided a link to Richard Beck, (someone with whom I am unfamiliar) in which he states, “In the end we have an emotional and theological puzzle. First, the bible unequivocally states that we were, in some profound way, “saved” and “rescued” by the cross. But saved from what? PSA says we are being saved from God.

    Saved from God? That surely is confused.

    Wright rejects PSA as typically taught by American Evangelicals. He refers particularly to the Romans Road interpretation, covered early in the series.

    However, he considers atonement to have penal and substitutionary elements based esp on Isa 53-54 and NT passages that are built on the Servant’s Song in Isaiah.

    For example,

    Exile was not an arbitrary punishment. If Israel worshipped gods other than YHWH, it was impossible to remain in the land—and it was impossible for the glorious Presence of YHWH to remain there either. By worshipping other gods, God’s people effectively sold themselves as slaves. The slavery of exile was thus the consequence of what Israel had done. It can of course be seen as “punishment,” and that is the image Isaiah 53 uses again and again (“He was wounded for our transgressions, . . . upon him was the punishment that made us whole, . . . YHWH has laid upon him the iniquity of us all,” 53:5–6). But Isaiah has framed this sharp-edged description of the “servant’s” death within the long poem about God’s faithfulness to the covenant, his victory over the idols, his dealing with exile, renewing the covenant (chap. 54), and so renewing creation itself (chap. 55). Our study of Romans indicates that Paul has exactly this larger narrative in mind as well rather than the truncated works contract in which “punishment” is the central theme. This means that the language of “punishment” must be used with great care. It would be easy at this point to lose our balance, to tip back once more into the “works contract.” “Oh well,” someone might say, “so Paul really was referring to Isaiah 53, so he did believe in penal substitutionary atonement, so we can go on telling the story as we always have.” Not so fast, Paul would respond. Isaiah’s language and Paul’s language mean what they mean within the larger story of God and Israel, of God’s covenant purposes through Israel for the world. You cannot take the language out of that context without making it mean something different. …

    The idea of “punishment” is in reality a sharp metaphor for the consequence that is writ large across the history of Israel—just as, when Paul is talking about sin and its results in Romans 1, he repeats three times that “God gave them up.” The corrupting and corrosive lifestyles he describes are not arbitrary, but rather the result, the consequence, of the original idolatry. This doesn’t mean that God is not involved in those consequences. God, as Creator, hates the idolatry and dehumanization that deface and damage damage his beautiful world and his image-bearing creatures. Unless that is so, God is not a good God, but a careless, faceless bureaucrat. But if we take the “punishment” metaphor and make it central, a very different narrative emerges—just as if we take a phrase like the “righteousness of God” and turn it into a medieval formula about the moral standing that we need, that God possesses, and that God then grants to his people—we transform the first-century meaning into something that, as we have seen, distorts the whole of Romans 1–4 and causes much of Paul’s subtle nuance to be lost. The normal reading of Romans 3 as the “works contract” and the “punishment” that falls on Jesus so that it may not fall on us is just such a distortion. It takes Isaiah’s metaphor and rebuilds a different narrative around it.

    Wright, N. T.. The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (Kindle Locations 5412-5436). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

    The death of Jesus, seen in this light, is certainly penal. It has to do with the punishment on Sin—not, to say it again, on Jesus—but it is punishment nonetheless. Equally, it is certainly substitutionary: God condemned Sin (in the flesh of the Messiah), and therefore sinners who are “in the Messiah” are not condemned. The one dies, and the many do not. All those narrative fragments we saw in Luke and John come into their own. “This man has done nothing wrong.” “Let one man die for the people, rather than the whole nation being wiped out.” But this substitution finds its true meaning not within the normal “works contract,” but within the God-and-Israel narrative, the vocational narrative, the story in accordance with the Bible. Once we rescue this substitution from its pagan captivity, it can resume its rightful place at the heart of the Jewish and then the messianic narrative, the story through which—in 8:4 as elsewhere—humans are rescued not so they can “go to heaven,” but so that “the right and proper verdict of the law could be fulfilled in us, as we live not according to the flesh but according to the spirit.”

    Wright, N. T.. The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (Kindle Locations 4622-4630). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

  5. Floyd asked (part 2) —

    As I read your post Part 66j, I was unclear if you share that particular objection. I saw in your post Part 66 a “Now, the goal isn’t to find the one, unique true theory. Most scholars are coming to the view that there are multiple true theories — that the atonement lies at the intersection of multiple themes and narratives.” Would you say that there is a place for substitutionary atonement as a part of the narrative?

    See today’s post for part of the answer: yes, I think there are multiple stories/narratives/themes intertwined in the Atonement.

    Do I agree with the Roman Road theory? Not particularly but, yes, as Wright argues for it to be modified.

    Should I have been clearer on this point? Yes, but I was preparing for a triple bypass when I wrote it, and so I give myself a pass for now.